To illustrate just how useful it is to have a mortar and pestle —and to accompany our essential post about this great, ancient tool — here are some favorite mortar-made preparations: simple, a-la-minute flavored oils for dipping bread, drizzling on grilled fish, or jazzing up soups and stews.
I set the mortar on the table for guests to spoon the oil right into their bowl. When the oil hits hot food, the heat catalyzes a blast of lovely perfume. These sauces couldn’t be easier to make. Below you’ll find a Method for Improvising as well as recipes for Lemon Oil and Chive Oil.
I also use my mortar and pestle to make rough tapanade-like condiments, like Olivada, a warm crush of olives that makes a terrific hors d’oeuvre on good bread, as well as a pasta sauce.
Method for Improvising: Mortar-Made Flavored Oil
This method is excellent for making small amounts of aromatic flavored oils for use at the last-minute as embellishments for soups, vegetables and simple fish dishes. It works best with soft, fresh, fragrant ingredients like tender herbs, garlic and grated citrus zest. To release their flavors quickly into the oil, you first chop them, then pound them in a mortar.
There is no exact formula for making these oils. The ratio of flavoring to oil will depend on the intensity of the ingredients you choose. You can taste them during their infusing time and add more flavorings if you wish. If you find them getting too strong, simply strain the flavoring out.
Flavoring, such as :
—Up to 2 cups tender mild herbs like basil, cilantro or arugula
—Up to 1/4 cup strongly flavored herbs such as chives, tarragon, rosemary
savory, thyme or sage
—Zest of 1 lemon, lime or small orange
—1 garlic clove
1/2 cup oil such as extra-virgin olive oil or grapeseed oil
Thinly slice or finely chop the flavoring and place it in a heavy duty bowl. Or place in a mortar with a pinch of salt and pound it to a coarse puree.
2. Mash the flavorings with the pestle as you drizzle in the oil. Set aside to infuse 1 hour before using. It not necessary to strain these quickly-made oils.
These oils will keep about 1 week refrigerated in a closed container. After that, strain out and discard the flavorings to keep the oils up to 3 weeks longer.
Lemon Olive Oil
At olive oil making time in the Abruzzo and Molise regions of Italy, lemons are often added to the last pressing to clean and freshen the press for the next season. The resulting oil, called limonato, is an intense olive oil redolent with lemon. Since the real thing is both expensive and hard to find, I make my own version by grinding lemon peel in a mortar with gutsy olive oil. This oil marries the perfume of olive and lemons without acidity from lemon juice. It is splendid on many foods – practically anything you would dress with olive oil – especially vegetables like roasted peppers, fennel and eggplant and fresh fish. It is great for improvising quick pasta dishes – like fresh fettucine, chopped arugula, Parmesan and pepper. It makes a superb salad dressing when mixed with a dry fragrant vinegar such as Banyuls or Cava. Balsamic overly accentuates the sweetness of the lemon.
With a vegetable peeler or a citrus zester, remove the peel from 1 lemon in thin strips. (Take care to avoid the bitter white pith). In a mortar or medium stainless steel or wooden bowl, combine the lemon peel and a pinch of salt. Pound and crush the peel with a pestle for several minutes to extract the oils. Use a circular motion to crush the peel against the bottom of the bowl as you dribble in the 1/2 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil a little at a time and continue working the peel this way for about a minute. Set the oil aside to infuse at least 1 hour before serving and up to 8 hours until it is fragrant with lemon (If you let it steep too long, it will begin to taste like candy). Strain into a clean, dry jar.
Chive oil is one of the easiest oils to make since chives are tender and release their flavor very quickly. Its delicate oniony flavor complements many foods, especially fish and shellfish dishes, and vegetables. A teaspoon of chive oil will go a long way to dress a baked potato, eliminating the need for butter. Since snipped chives are lovely to look at and are extremely flavorful, you don’t even need to pound them in a mortar.
Thinly slice or snip 1/4 cup chives and mix with 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil . Set aside to infuse for one half hour before serving.